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L’affaire Blair

by Heather MacDonald Friday, May. 16, 2003 at 12:48 PM

At the paper of record, it seems, ideology trumps truth.

The New York Times has made its choice: preserving the fictions around affirmative action is more important than shoring up its crumbling journalistic reputation. Faced with a growing scandal around the recently discovered fabrications and plagiarism of young Times reporter Jayson Blair, the Times is denying the most plausible reason why it kept handing Blair plum assignments despite clear evidence of his incompetence: Blair was black. But in denying that the Blair fiasco hinges on race, the Times has left itself open to a far more serious charge: that winking at journalistic blunders is standard Times practice.

Reporter Jayson Blair blazed a trail of deceit through the Times’s news pages. His most spectacular frauds occurred during two of the most important stories of the last year: the sniper shootings in the D.C. metropolitan area last fall and the war in Iraq. Blair concocted out of thin air an incendiary story of prosecutorial blundering in the interrogation of D.C. sniper John Muhammad. Equally fabricated was a front-page story claiming that investigators had evidence fingering Lee Boyd Malvo as the shooter in the sniper killings. Blair’s reporting from the home front during the Iraq War should earn him an award from the Sierra Club: conserving resources, it was constructed by zealous recycling of other reporters’ stories, fictitiously filed from far-flung datelines across the country while Blair was sipping lattes in Brooklyn.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran more than four full pages purporting to document and atone for the Blair frauds. But rather than coming clean about the Blair case, the Times has chosen to deny its central plot line: the risks of letting the mission of racial diversity trump professional standards. The Times portrays itself as an unwitting victim of a pathological liar, who abused the trust essential to any news organization. Yes, acknowledges the Times, Blair was promoted at break-neck speed, but his race had nothing to do with his rise. Rather, he was rewarded for his accomplishments. How could we have known, argues the Times, that he was making stories up, since we had no inkling of his perfidy?

This story line is absurd on its face. From the moment Blair arrived at the Times through a minority-recruiting program, supervisors noted his high error rates and sloppy work habits. Before every promotion, at least one editor had called attention to his inadequate skills and endemic inaccuracies—the paper ran 50 corrections on Blair stories over three and a half years. He behaved unprofessionally—circulating confidential documents, talking back to supervisors, and running up a hefty bar tab on the company account. Management was on repeated notice of his severe shortcomings as a reporter yet chose to ignore and even suppress them.

It’s hard not to feel the poignancy of the Times’s dilemma. For years it has bludgeoned the world on the topic of affirmative action. It has branded anyone who opposes color-coded admissions practices and hiring as insensitive to blacks, if not racist. It has argued that race-based hiring practices are essential to a newsroom. And it has denied assiduously that racial preferences may require lowered standards.

Faced with the record of Blair’s monumental malpractice and its own persistent overlooking of that malpractice, the Times had a choice. It could admit that, at least in this case, the paper had indeed relaxed its ordinary standards of excellence to push a black reporter quickly up the ranks. Doing so would undercut its credo that an obsession with diversity never sacrifices quality. But the alternative response to the Blair affair would seem much worse: if race played no role in the Times’s tolerance for Blair’s errors, then presumably other reporters have received similar exemptions from journalistic canons. If management’s treatment of Blair was not preferential, but merely ordinary, we should expect similar devastating exposes of other reporters’ work in the future. In other words: If the Blair fiasco was the product of universally applied Times standards, then the paper has gone to the dogs.

Amazingly, the Times has chosen to sacrifice its own reputation rather than the myths around affirmative action. Says managing editor Gerald Boyd: “To say now that [Blair’s] promotion was about diversity in my view doesn’t begin to capture what was going on.” OK, fine. We’ll take the Times at its word—though we have less and less reason to do so. (An editor who protested one of Blair’s many promotions, for example, was reminded of the paper’s commitment to diversify, and executive editor Howell Raines had boasted to the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001 that the hiring of Blair had made the staff “more diverse.”) So according to the Times’s logic, when other reporters are told that their correction rates are “extraordinarily high by the standards of the paper,” when their editors warn top management that those same reporters are “big trouble,” when supervisors send anguished appeals to the paper’s executives that the reporters should be “stop[ped] from writing” for the Times “right now,” the Times’s standard response would be to dispatch them to the biggest, most complicated stories of the year.

If the Times chooses to self-destruct, that is its prerogative. But it has missed an opportunity to explore a serious problem: the toll that affirmative action can take on its beneficiaries. Perhaps Blair’s never-disclosed “personal problems” were the sole cause of his frenzied deceptions. But another possible explanation is the pressure to perform in a role for which he was not qualified.

The practitioners of affirmative action believe that they are bestowing a great favor on minorities by admitting them into academic or professional environments for which they are less prepared than their peers. This is a self-serving fiction. Being put into a tough competitive world with fewer tools to compete than your colleagues is no picnic. While there are some happy endings to such deliberate mismatches between qualifications and academic or job demands, in many cases these mismatches do more for the egos of the social engineers than for their alleged beneficiaries. Now the Times is walking away from its own culpability in pushing an out-of-his-depth black reporter too far, too fast. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives—either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher,” warns publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Meanwhile, those highly qualified minority applicants who would have gotten a position under a color-blind system are unjustly but unavoidably stigmatized as affirmative action recruits.

Journalistic fraud and error are equal-opportunity sins. White reporters, such as the infamous Stephen Glass, have committed hoaxes as scandalous as anything Jayson Blair accomplished. But few had amassed so extensive a record of known errors and unprofessional behavior before their frauds were exposed. It defies credulity to believe that if Blair had been white, the Times would have given him so many second chances and promotions in the face of ongoing, unchanging evidence of sub-par performance. The Times, however, maintains that it would have. Perhaps its moniker should now read, instead of the newspaper of record, “the newspaper of conscious negligence.”

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